Head Case

Experts say ex-football players with head injuries often end up in the criminal justice system. Former USC lineman Chris Brymer is exhibit A.

Brymer himself, in halting fashion, acknowledges that something about his mind has changed. "I had a really strange thing happen to my head," he says during one of several interviews with SF Weekly from the county jail on the sixth floor of 850 Bryant. "I felt like I sustained an injury, and nothing had happened. The best way to describe it is I had a problem in communicating and comprehending things."

He has no illusions about how far he has fallen. "Obviously, there's a tag that goes along with having a shopping cart and pushing it down the street with recycling. I had a hundred thousand dollars three years ago," he says. "I never thought it would happen. A lot of time I just walk around thinking to myself, 'This blows.'"

Early this year, Brymer traveled to San Francisco. He was hoping for a new start, but found himself living and sleeping on the streets again. It didn't take long for things to go from bad to worse.

Brymer (far left) played in the 
short-lived XFL.“He was always a guy who was looking to protect,” 
a former teammate recalls.
Courtesy of Melissa Brymer
Brymer (far left) played in the short-lived XFL.“He was always a guy who was looking to protect,” a former teammate recalls.
Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was arrested five times before he died at age 26. An autopsy revealed that he suffered from CTE.
Getty Images
Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was arrested five times before he died at age 26. An autopsy revealed that he suffered from CTE.

Late in the afternoon on July 19, Brymer, who had begun spending his nights along the empty shores of San Francisco Bay east of the Dogpatch neighborhood, made his way to a soup kitchen at Mission Rock and Third Street for an early dinner. Here's how he recalls what happened that day: While waiting in line for food, he was accosted by another of the facility's patrons, who began cursing at him.

The two left the kitchen at roughly the same time. Once outside, the man began talking to a friend, who was 6-foot-11 and 310 pounds — even bigger than Brymer. The friend approached Brymer as he stood on the Muni T-line platform at Mission Rock and pulled out a 6-inch blade.

"I'm crazy. I'm gonna kill you," Brymer recalls him saying. "Don't fuck with me." He tackled the man to the ground in order, as he puts it, to "restrain" him. Within seconds, a Muni train arrived. Figuring he was safe, Brymer stood up and walked away.

The next day, he again saw the big man he had tussled with — this time at the Muni platform at Fourth and Berry streets. Brymer kept his distance, waiting behind when the guy stepped onto a T-train that carried him away. As Brymer stood listlessly on the platform holding his shopping bag, he was approached by a half-dozen police officers, who cuffed him and led him away, bewildered.

The other men involved in the altercation, Henry Therkield and Shaun Parker, have a different story. It was Therkield who first interacted with Brymer in the soup kitchen. He would later tell police officers that he was approached by a "crazy" man — Brymer — while getting his food, who gazed at him directly and said, "Someone is gonna die." Concerned that he was being threatened, Therkield left the kitchen and encountered Parker, his friend, outside.

During a hearing in San Francisco Superior Court on Aug. 4 and 5, Parker testified that while he was sitting with Therkield on the Muni station platform, Brymer approached, complaining that Therkield had "cussed at him" inside the soup kitchen. When Brymer didn't go away, Parker stood up and confronted him. "I got nothing to do with that," Parker said. "Just back off." He admitted in his testimony that he was brandishing a knife.

Brymer then reached into a trash can, pulled out some form of "smooth" object — Parker couldn't say what it was — and began beating Parker over the head, saying, "Die, nigger, die." A Muni train pulled up, filled with people, who began screaming at Brymer to leave Parker alone. Brymer fled the scene.

A day later, according to Parker, he saw Brymer again. He left the Fourth Street Muni platform and crossed the street to avoid a confrontation, but Brymer followed him and started pummeling him on the sidewalk in front of the Panera cafe at the corner of Fourth and King streets. When a train approached, Parker hurried back to the station and caught it, with Brymer in pursuit. Once onboard, Parker called the police.

Both accounts of the incidents have weak spots. It's not clear, for instance, why Brymer attacked a man holding a knife to subdue him, rather than simply walking away. Parker's story is also problematic. Muni surveillance cameras show that the two men were at the same stop on July 20, but depict only Parker slowly boarding a train — not running or being pursued — while Brymer walks down the platform cagily.

Brymer denies using a racial slur on either of the days he encountered Parker, and says he didn't interact with him at all when they saw each other the day after the initial fight. His attorney, deputy public defender Nicole Solis, says the allegation of a threat using the word "nigger" was concocted to "capture the DA's imagination." Says Solis, "I have represented all kinds of people — Aryan Brotherhood, neo-Nazi, all kinds — and Chris is not a person I think would ever use this word."

Parker's own criminal background raises questions about his credibility. He admitted under cross-examination during the pretrial hearing that he had multiple felony and misdemeanor convictions — including assault on a police officer, auto theft, and domestic violence — and that he was under a stay-away order from his former residential hotel in the Mission.

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Headaches, tell mle about it.  I played all four years of college football at USC with a headache. In fact, many people wondered why I did not try out for professional football, and that was it. I looked forward to the end of the headaches. Would I do it again? Yes, but that is because I seem to be okay, although some of my family and friends wonder about  that. I seem to be at my best when I am writing, so I blog political commentary a  lot. Keeps my mind in tune, I think.

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